The Torah world was thrown into yet another shock as tragedy struck unexpected and unannounced. There was no warning, no moments of time in which to daven to the Ribbono Shel Olam to ward off yet another tragedy in what seems to be an unending spate of gezeiros thrust upon Klal Yisrael.
HaRav Yisrael Chaim Praeger, Mashgiach Ruchni of Yeshivas Novominsk, one of Klal Yisrael’s young rising leaders, was taken from us suddenly and tragically, passing away from a sudden heart attack.
In the 45 years that Rav Yisrael Chaim impacted on the Torah world, his mark was felt by literally thousands of people, young and old, from Gedolei Yisroel to baalei batim, baalei teshuvah, and everyone in between. All those who knew him marveled at the level of his sincerity and enthusiasm for every aspect of Yiddishkeit, on every level of Yiddishkeit, ranging from his simple expression of warmth to the most distant and indigent Jew to reveling in the deepest mysteries of Toras Hanistar.
As these few paragraphs are being written with the commencement of shiva here in the United States, hundreds of menachmim are poring into the home where he raised together with his Rebbitzen Tibadel L’haim Aruchim, nine children, each one with a different chapter of an open book, whose powerful stories will continue to inspire for generations. His home served as more than a shelter to a wonderful Torah family. It was a host to countless guests, talmidim and friends, to wandering Jews, lost in the cruelty of an unforgiving world, who sought the comfort of his smile and the warmth of his embrace — both physically and spiritually.
His impact will be enshrined eternally as a compelling link in the unending chain of our mesorah. The passing of an odom godol in his prime leaves a gaping void in Klal Yisroel.
As I write these sentences, remembering my own personal encounters with Rav Yisrael Chaim as a bochur in Eretz Yisrael, and later as I met him during summers in Camp Rayim, I realize how difficult it is to encapsulate a life whose every living moment was not merely a brief article that conveyed fully the essence of Torah, but rather one that spoke volumes. Thus the family has requested that due to the short period of time from the levaya until press time, at this point only a brief overview should be written in time for the deadline.
Talmidim Share their Memories…
Reb Yisrael Chaim was defined by many of his dear friends, mentors and students in an unparalleled array of diverse qualities. Each talmid that I spoke to preceded his view of their rebbe, the Mashgiach, with a superlative. None of his talmidim, or chaveirim mentioned any of his attributes as a mere aside. In each one of those attributes he strove to the highest level of greatness in avodas haKodesh.
“He was the ultimate, mevakaish — seeker of greatness. He epitomized Ahavas Yisrael. He personified sheifah L’Gadlus. He exemplified Nosai B’ol Im Chavairo.”
Each talmid, friend, and relative of Rav Yisrael Chaim shone a spotlight upon another aspect of his rich personality. “ His warmth was unprecedented. His Shiurim were the most creative. His chidushim in Agada were unparalleled.”
Each of these statements, taken separately and combined, zero in on one factor: Klal Yisrael is left orphaned, together with the children, wife, mother, brothers, in-laws and thousands of Talmidim who lost a loving father, a devoted rebbe and an promising Gadol baTorah.
While yet a young bochur, it was clear to any observer that Yisrael Chaim was among the B’nai Aliyah. Raised in a home enveloped in Torah and Yiras Shamayim, to his father Rav Shloime Yitzchok Praeger zt’l and Tibadel L’Chaim Tovim his mother Rebbitzen Shulamis Praeger, (today Rebetzin Keller), Yisrael Chaim was clearly destined for greatness.
Rav Shloime Yitzchok Praeger, from the foremost Talmidim of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin was a towering Torah personality, who, like his son, left this world at an untimely age. Both of them passed away several weeks after their eldest child’s wedding, leaving a family and a nation in a state of mourning. Rav Shloime Yitzchok was a devoted father and a rebbe whose enduring impact is still talked about decades after his passing.
According to many observers, Rav Shloime Yitzchok was a Yid who personified m’sikas haTorah, a ‘zisse Yid’ whose greatness in midos was only matched by his greatness in Torah. The family always felt that in so many ways young Reb Yisrael Chaim was their true nechama upon the loss of their father, Rav Shloime Yitzchok, as he carried with him so many of the rare qualities of his cherished father.
Rav Yisrael Chaim, raised in an atmosphere of Kedusha, learned in the elementary school of Oholei Torah, with no formal schooling in Limudei Chol. It came as no surprise that he was chosen by Rav Hutner, even before becoming a Bar Mitzvah, to join an elite group of talmidim in a special shiur in Yeshiva Mesivta Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin.
Rav Hutner would not be the only Gadol to see emerging greatness in Rav Yisrael Chaim. When leaving Rav Moshe Shapiro to learn under Rav Nachum Partzovitz in the Mir in Yerushalayim, the niftar was given a Michtav hamlatza, a glowing letter of approbation. Rav Nachum later told a confidant that in fifty years of seeing letters on behalf of potential students, he had never seen a letter glowing with such praise about a potential talmid.
It was the same greatness that Rav Eliyahu Weintraub saw in later years as he invited Rav Yisrael Chaim to learn Toras haNistar, in a special select chaburah.
It was the greatness that Rav Dovid Soleveitchik saw in him, that prompted him, despite his frail health, to accompany the Aron all the way to the kevurah on Har Hamenuchos.
After learning in Yeshivas Chaim Berlin, Rav Yisroel Chaim went to Eretz Yisrael where he continued learning under the tutelage of Gedolai Olam, including Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l with whom he developed a tremendous kesher, and y’lch, Rav Moshe Schapiro and Rav Dov Schwartzman. He then went on to the Mir where he became an extremely close talmid to Rav Nachum Partzovitz. After his marriage to the daughter of Rav Yudel Aidelman, an aishes chayil with whom he built a beautiful family, Rav Yisroel Chaim continued learning by Rav Dovid Soleveitchik.
Signs of Greatness
It was clearly apparent that his years of study in the Mir under the close tutelage of Rav Nachum had a great impact on his shiurim and chaburos. Replete with quotes from Rav Nachum, brimming with insight, his chaburos in Yeshivas Novominsk had the ability to encompass wide-ranging sugyos under one Yesod. And the years in Brisk clearly accounted for his amazing proficiency in Seder Kodshim.
After his marriage he moved to Antwerp for several years, where he became a shoel u’maishiv in a prominent yeshiva. The tremendous hashpaa’ah of Rav Hutner was clearly apparent, as Rav Yisroel Chaim merged the Torah of the Sefas Emes and Rav Tzadok with the yesodos of the Maharal and the Ramchal and Rav Chaim Volozhiner. He had an uncanny ability to explain the most difficult concepts to his talmidim, each with his own nuances and brilliant inflections.
His quest for greatness was not restricted by the Torah of his Rabbeim. His love for gedolei Yisrael was profound. If there was an Odom Gadol in the vicinity, he would pursue the ability to develop and maintain a kesher with him, attempting to bask in the glow of their Torah.
His Avodas hatefillah set a standard to which talmidim would aspire. Like an “eved lifnei Rabbo,” he would stand with intense kavana, and despite the myriad tirchos and difficulties that a young man with a large family is responsible for, he never missed a single tefilah in Yeshiva.
No matter where he had to be in the morning, Rav Yisrael Chaim was there, in Yeshiva, for tefilas mincha. He was a role model for each and every talmid.
His Shemoneh Esrai did not end at the same time as did the tefillos of the tzibur. Although the minyan was complete, Rav Yisroel Chaim continued his avodah. Every day, with tears flowing from his eyes, he would daven on behalf of his talmidim, some who were not learning the way they should be, others who lost a parent, and for those who were in need of a shidduch.
He was always insistent to daven in the place of Torah — in the Novomisker Yeshiva, together with his beloved talmidim. He often exclaimed to the bochurim how he could not fathom davening anywhere else! And though his tefilos in the Yemos HaChol were filled with hislahaavus and emotion, the pachad, the sheer awe of the yemai hadin was apparent in all the tefilos of the Yomom Noraim.
Yomim Tovim transformed Rav Yisrael Chaim. Some talmidim had said that if there was ever a way to put a face to the words, “vsamachta b’chgecha,” it would be the face of Rav Yisrael Chaim Praeger. His Simchas Yom Tov overflowed with chidushim in halacha and Agadah and the dikduk hamitzvos hayom was unparalleled, not with nervous anxiety, but rather the joy that clearly conveyed that every one of his senses was imbued with total ruchniyus. His face would shine, as he made sure to fulfill each mitzvah in tachlis hadikduk.
The Quintessential Mashgiach
In the world of the modern day yeshiva, a Mashgiach is usually known as the last straw before official chastisement. Reb Yisrael Chaim’s role of Mashgiach was in no way the typical watchman who would chide the latecomers and discipline the unmanageable. Rav Praeger was not the type of Mashgiach boys would run from, but rather he was the unique Mashgiach that boys would run to!
He was a literal father to his beloved talmidim. He would build the boys up, focusing on their positive attributes instead of their negative ones. He approached each bochur with warmth and caring, and they responded in kind.
Once a boy was late to seder because he missed supper and was forced to go to an eatery to buy something to eat. Instead of rebuking him, Rav Yisroel Chaim insisted that he come to his home for supper to make sure that the boy would have a proper meal.
He would maintain a warm kesher with talmidim long after they left the Yeshiva, caring for their every concern. Their tragedies became his tragedies and their simchos became his. So much was a talmid’s simcha important, that despite coming late to weddings of relatives, he would be sure to come on time if not early to a student’s wedding. “He needs me there,” Rav Yisroel Chaim would say.
Boys who came from impoverished homes, and whose parents were spending their last dollars on s’char limud would be called into his office, only to leave with spending money. The Mashgiach knew that their parents could not afford extra money for their children. But Rav Yisrael Chaim also knew he could not afford to let them be in his yeshiva without an extra dollar to clean a shirt or mend a shoe.
His kindness surpassed the realm of contemporary chesed. Rav Yisroel Chaim often visited students who left the yeshiva years earlier and were struggling in Kollelim in Eretz Yisrael. During each visit he would bring wads of cash for their families. He became so endeared to many parents in the Yeshiva that they became true partners in his myriad merciful missions.
A Talmid wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael to learn, but financial difficulties had forced his parents to refuse permission. After Rav Yisrael Chaim had clarified that the only impediment was a financial one, he was ecstatic. “ Don’t worry! If the problem is money then it will all be taken care of.” And within a few hours it was!
The smallest things were of utmost importance to him when it came to the needs of any Ben Torah. There was a Canadian boy who learned in a yeshiva in New Jersey together with his son Shaya. Customs regulations precluded his Canadian parents from sending their son any packages that contained meat. Rav Yisrael Chaim made special packages for the Canadian boy, ensuring that he too would receive a little extra meat before the Yomim Tovim.
His kindness expanded way beyond the walls of the yeshiva or even the greater Novominsker family. During the Shiva a single mother came crying to his wife that for the last eight years Rav Yisrael Chaim had paid her grocery bill!
A Father to Yesomim
Often, when tragedy strikes, members of the community join in a very vocal and active first response. Time unfortunately erodes the emotions of mercy, yet the tide of tragedy remains with its ebbing impact as devastating as ever. Rav Yisrael Chaim never forgot those families. Years after a sudden petirah, he would tend to the orphaned children. He even asked the Novominsker Rebbe to accompany him one Rosh Hashanah to wish an Almanah and her family a Gut Yohr.
A tzorah to him was a piercing blow. Once it was rumored that a talmid was getting divorced a mere few weeks after the wedding. He was beside himself in grief, which was turned diametrically into joyous celebration when hearing that the rumors were unfounded.
His sensitivity for any Yid expanded to any descendant of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. Often he would comfort indigent and deranged Yidden whose outward appearance frightened most onlookers. Rav Yisrael obviously saw the neshama shining within the megushamdig appearance.
One Pesach night he insisted in inviting a homeless wanderer to his Seder. The man was bitter and unruly, and refused any overtures of kindness. And so, Rav Yisrael went home empty-handed. But before making Kiddush, he asked his family if he could go back and check on the man. He could not bear the fact that perhaps a Yid in Boro Park would not attend a Seder.
Erev Yom Kippur a few years ago, a man who was known to be not the conventional Yeshiva Talmid interrupted his preparations for the Seudah Hamafsekes. He wanted to review the tefilos of Yom Kippur in the quest of finding out which prayers were most important and what they actually meant. Despite his busy schedule, Rav Yisroel Chaim gave the man a significant amount of time in explaining each of the tefilos to him.
There was no warning of the sudden tragedy that was to befall the Praeger family, the Noviminsker Yeshiva, and the rest of the Torah world. Rav Yisroel Chaim appeared to be in perfect health, brimming with vitality. He had gone to Denver, Colorado, together with family members to spend a few days to rest up before the new zman. So typical of Rav Yisrael Chaim, he wanted to bring along some yesomim who had no father to take them on trips.
The family, including Rav Yisroel Chaim, his brothers, and a son, were on their way to climb scenic mountains that are known as hallmarks of the beauty of the Ribbono Shel Olam’s handiwork, the same mountains that Rav Gifter Zt’l had traveled to years ago. Suddenly, without warning, Rav Yisroel Chaim felt very ill. Yet he refused to alarm his family members, wanting to return to their lodgings alone, so his relatives would not miss out on their sightseeing. Only when he made them promise that they will return to the mountains, did he allow them to take him back to the city.
On the way back to Denver, the driver, not knowing the severity of the situation, pointed to other sights and mentioned that they would be passing a particular mountain. “When Rav Gifter saw this mountain,” said the driver, “he made a brocha Oseh maaseh B’raishis.”
Despite his severe chest pains, Rav Yisrael Chaim asked for the driver to stop and show him, so that he, too, could make the brocha. It was to be his final brocha in this temporal world. The rest of his blessings will be bestowed from Heaven.
His calm demeanor during his final moments was so typical of the nature of his character. Bochurim said never saw him in state of anger, or nervousness. Throughout the years he was a mashgiach, he always remained calm, and in control.
Realizing that this was to be the end, he asked that those accompanying him to recite Tehilim, and without a quiver in his voice, he inquired if anyone knew CPR.
He then lamented. “I cannot leave this world, I have so much left to do.” Those were his final words before his soul ascended to Shomayim.
The bitter news spread quickly, creating ripples of shock across the Torah world. The levaya began in Denver, where Rav Kahn, the Rav of Denver, and Rav Piekarski, a former talmid, now Rebbe in a yeshiva in Denver, were maspid. Then the aron was taken to New York, to the Noviminsker Yeshiva, where the niftar was a marbitz Torah in his all-too-short life. Thousands of talmidim and aveilim swarmed to the yeshiva, filling the blocks before the yeshiva, coming to pay their respects to a ben Torah, who accomplished so much in his 45 years on this world.
The Novominsker Rebbe delivered an emotional hesped, arousing the olam to tears. Between sobs, the Rebbe depicted the loss of a ‘yochid b’mino’, one of a kind marbitz Torah, whose neimus and harbotzas Torah were felt by all. The Rebbe described how the niftar was so much like his father, with the same varemkeit and greatness in Torah, a hemshech of his legacy. Now father and son are both together, rejoicing in Olam Haboh.
The Noviminsker Rebbe then addressed the grieving children, comforting them by saying “Bonim Atem LaHashem,” you are all children of the Ribono Shel Olam, and will be comforted by our Father in Heaven.
Rav Chaim Dov Keller, Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, Chicago, who married the widowed Rebetzin Praeger, was maspid his step-son with the words of Sholom Hamelech, “Eis Rikod, and Eis Lispod.” Rav Chaim Dov depicted the simcha of the wedding of the eldest Praeger daughter several weeks ago, contrasting it with the current tzaar of the petirah. He described the niftar’s chesed and Torah, and the irreplaceable void created with his passing.
Reb Yudel Adelman , the niftar’s father in law, based his hesped on the possuk “Tov Lagever Ki Yisa Ohl,” and described the “Yoke of Torah, family, and derech eretz,” that the niftar carried, devoting himself to each. He was a model marbitz Torah, model mashgiach, model husband and father, a true mentch in every sense of the word.
There was not a dry eye among the crowd when the niftar’s son Yeshaya, who had accompanied his father on the trip, was maspid. “Tatteh, I was the last one to learn with you that morning,” his son cried. “You loved us so much, you were always there for us.”
Rav Yosef Mermelstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Noviminsk, was maspid “an Amud of the Yeshiva, the rare combination of Torah u’chesed. As a sho’el umaishiv, he was a true lamdan, who built up the yeshiva. How can the yeshiva go on without him?”
Rav Mordechai Praeger, a brother of the niftar, depicted Rav Yisroel Chaim as a true “nechomoh to the family” after his father’s untimely passing. Even as a child his greatness was apparent, as he was placed in a special class for ‘metzuyonim.”
Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heshel Bick, who knew the niftar since he was a child, was maspid a “tzaddik and yoshor whose hasmodoh and kishronos were outstanding, even as a young child. “According to the Novominsker Rebbe’s hesped,” said Rav Bick, “it is apparent that the niftar, who was held in high esteem by his Rabbeim, is a ben olam haboh.”
Rav Michel Handelsman, a brother in law, depicted the niftar’s exemplary ability to bring other people up to his level by virtue of his endearing personality. “He had a kuntz to make people more elevated.” Rav Shaul Pinter, b’shaim all the talmidim, described the niftar’s warmth toward the talmidim, how he felt with their tzaar and shared in their simchos. The niftar’s son Shloime also delivered an emotional leavetaking from his beloved father, who was so devoted to the family. Rabbi Eliyahu Seewald, the new son-in-law, described his shver as the “glue that held the family together.”
In Eretz Yisroel
After the emotional levaya, the niftar was taken to Eretz Yisroel, where a levaya took place at the Mirrer Bais Medrash. Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the esteemed Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva, delivered an emotional hesped for his beloved former talmid. Rav Ahron Chodosh, Mashgiach of Mir, also was maspid, recalling the niftar’s years in the yeshiva, and his exemplary hasmodoh.
As a gesture of closeness and friendship, Rav Yonason David, son in law of Rav Hutner, flew to Eretz Yisroel from Switzerland to attend the levaya.
Rav Shmuel Yaakov Borenshtein , Rosh yeshiva of Chevron Geulah, described the niftar as a true mevakesh, a lev rachum, a “grosier hartz.” Rav Moshe Saks, an uncle, and Rav Yudel Adelman, the niftar’s father in law, were also maspid. Rav Nechemia Kaplan described Rav Yisroel Chaim a “giver, always giving, never taking.”
Rav Yisroel Perlow, son of the Noviminsker Rebbe, recalled his beloved Mashgiach always with a “sefer ponim yafos,” always a smile and gut vort. The niftar’s son was also masid, as was Rabbi Yechiel Fried in the name of the talmidim of Eretz Yisroel. Rav Dovid Soloveitchik accompanied the aron to Har Hamenuchos, where Rav Yisroel Chaim was laid to his final rest.
The niftar is survived by his wife, a true eishes chayil, his mother, nine children and nine siblings, as well as thousands of talmidim who are today marbitzei Torah across the yeshiva world. His presence leaves a gaping void, an open wound in the fraying fabric of our generation. TNZB’H.
The author would like to thank Rabbis Nochum Binder and Shaul Pinter, as well as family members for generously sharing of their time and impressions of the niftar. We would like to apologize for any inaccuracies due to time constraints.